Oliver sat forward in his chair.
It was the first of three heaves needed to get out of the sagging recliner. Oliver had to admit both he and the chair were starting to show their age — a tear here, some spots there — but he still felt young. He hadn't even retired yet and, if he needed to rock himself a few times to get out of a chair and grab a snack during a commercial break on his day off, then Father Time hadn't the stamina to go a few rounds with ol' Ollie.
He rummaged through the kitchen cupboard for the last bag of microwave popcorn and held it up in mock victory before tossing closing the swinging door on it and setting the timer. As the microwave hummed, he could hear shrill squeals of delight next door from the neighbor girl as she played outside. She couldn't be more than 3, and she loved to be chased around the yard — healthy kid to be sure. Oliver could often see her through his kitchen window, and he was glad for the youthful energy in the neighborhood.
The first few kernels began to pop, bringing Oliver's surroundings back into focus, but the next sound he heard wasn't popping kernels. He thought he heard the heel-toe clip of expensive shoes crossing the kitchen's linoleum floor. He quickly turned his head, but saw nothing. He took a few steps and peered around the corner into the living room — no one. His eyes scanned the room back and forth just to make sure he was alone. A snappy jingle chimed from the television as the cable news host returned to introduce the show's next guest.
The first half of the program had focused on the new virus everyone was so afraid of these days, but Oliver — like many of his neighbors — wasn't terribly worried about it. There were benefits to living in small town U.S.A., and one of them was easy access to simple horse-sense as far as Oliver was concerned. While folks elsewhere were swayed by the liberal fear-mongering about this respiratory disease, people in Oliver's neck of the woods weren't taking the bait. This new virus was obviously a flu and nothing more. That's what Bruce and Walt had said over lunch the other day, and they always seemed to know what they were talking about.
And Oliver knew his history. This country had weathered sickness before — the West Nile virus, polio and a veritable menagerie of flus ranging from swine to bird. This was far from the deadliest disease the world had ever faced, but it also happened to be an election year, and the timing was too coincidental for Oliver. He didn't doubt the existence of this disease, but he was also convinced people were inflating its danger for political purposes. Anyone who did that, clearly didn't care what happened to their friends and neighbors — not like folks in Oliver's hometown did. People were being told to wear masks, stay home and avoid each other as much as possible. All of that would hurt business owners in small towns like this, and that didn't sit right with Oliver — he wasn't going to let a hoax ruin people's livelihoods.
A chirp from the microwave let him know the popcorn was ready. A third guest had joined the show by the time Oliver made his way back to the recliner, warm popcorn at the ready. He turned around, held the bowl gingerly and began to let his body slump into the familiar grooves of the recliner before pushing a first handful of popcorn into his mouth.
"I'd like to chat for a minute, Ollie," a voice said.
Oliver jumped as he suddenly became aware a well-dressed man was sitting on the couch. Despite the man's thin frame, he wore a wide-tailored suit. He sat with one leg across the opposite knee and had his fist lazily jammed under his chin to support a head of slick, dark hair. The man's collar was tight and the knot of his tie even tighter — its pattern a grid of simple squares. On his feet, he wore green and tan argyle socks and a pair of shiny, two-tone wingtips — the kind that sound expensive when they meet linoleum.
Oliver swore he'd seen this man in an old black and white film. The thought was so engrossing that Oliver fully expected the quiet intruder to pluck a single cigarette from a shiny metal case and slip it between his lips before lighting up with a wearied sigh.
"I like to get to know my hosts as much as I can before we part ways," the man said, still facing the television set. "It's getting to be time I moved on, so let me introduce myself. My name is David."
The initial shock melted into anger as Oliver sat up straight and opened his mouth to deliver a not so polite invitation toward the door. The man simply raised two fingers as if the conversation were still a casual one, and Oliver found his own words never quite came.
"Save your breath, friend," David said, letting his head fall back to get a better look at the ceiling. "You're going to need it. Besides, I know what you'll say. This is your home, and I'm not welcome. But the fact of the matter is you invited me in."
Oliver swallowed the last few bits of popcorn that lingered on his tongue, ready to challenge the man's lie, but the thin features on David's face perked into a smile as if he'd just read the punchline of some joke written on the living room ceiling. The man's oily voice beat Oliver to the punch again.
"See, I've been bouncing around this town for a couple months now," David said. "Nobody wants me, but plenty of people aren't quite willing to stop me either. I'm a pretty slick fellow, but I'm not too proud to hitch a ride when the need strikes. I'd been making my way west across the state, and I was having some trouble for awhile, until I got here. This town has been quite friendly to me — but then I've only killed a few of the kind folks here who brought me into their homes so far."
The silence following David's confession was filled only by the angry voices coming from the television. The cable news host and his guests were now arguing about how many people the virus had killed. It was then that a strange thought dawned on Oliver. His eyes darted back and forth from the television screen to the man on the couch, and for the first time, David met Oliver's gaze — albeit sideways. There was a passive, cold quality in the visitor's eyes as his face formed a tired smirk.
"That's riiiight," David rasped in a sing-song tone. "Now, just to be clear Ollie ol' pal, I'm not going to off you next. I'll have you coughing here soon, and your throat will probably be sore by tomorrow morning. Later on, I'll even put the squeeze on your lungs for a bit, but I'm going to let you live. You're not the best use of my resources right now anyway. I'm an opportunist, you see."
As relieved as he was this killer had little interest in him, Oliver wasn't sure what he meant by "opportunist." David, reading the confusion on Oliver's face, blew a short puff of exasperation through his nostrils.
"Let me spell it out for you, friend," David said, sitting forward and holding his hands finger tip to finger tip. "I met you the night you went out with the fellas. You hit up your favorite place, as did a group of folks who had been a belated — and might I add overcrowded — graduation party earlier in the week. I had been tagging along with them for awhile, but they weren't the most hospitable crowd for someone like myself. You seemed like a better place to hang my hat for a spell. Turns out, you're more spry than you look old-timer. If only I'd known that before I started working on you, I could have spared myself some effort."
Oliver glared across the carpet at David.
"Working on me? I went out with the guys just a few days ago," he said. "You can't touch me until it's been two weeks."
David mockingly returned Oliver's expression then let his face ease back to its natural, slacked position.
"Sure, that's what Bruce and Walt told you, but those two don't know half as much as they think they do, Ollie old pal — especially about me," David said. "Sometimes I choose to move that slow — true enough — but I can put more pep in my step when it suits me. Around here, I'm usually settled in after three or four days, but I've got to keep moving — greener pastures, the next hill to climb, you know?"
David chuckled again.
"Take your friend Walt, for example," he said.
The last phrase hung in the air and made Oliver pay even closer attention to David's words. The sly man relaxed and sat back against the couch, spreading his arms across its top and glancing toward the ceiling again.
"He's not quite as tough as you, so I might make myself comfortable at his place for awhile," David said. "But what really matters to me is that he refuses to listen to the doctors — not unlike yourself. That's all fine by me, of course — gives me more room to work. See, while you and I have spent most of our nights watching television right here in this room, Walt's been showing me around some. Since you guys met up for lunch, we've been to see his grandkids up north, bought a few things we didn't really need at the store, not to mention spent some time at the bars — what's a holiday without a drink or two after all? It was just a swell time, let me tell you."
At this point, Oliver began to lose interest in the yarn, but David suddenly perked up with a sarcastically gleeful smile on his face, which somehow demanded his full attention.
"In fact, I got acquainted with a young woman who introduced me to her mother," David said. "Dear old mom and her hubby took me to meet their friends, because they just couldn't stand the thought of summer going by without a neighborhood barbecue. After all the elbow rubbing, their friend the repair man put me up for the night then passed me on to his boss next day after he brought him the morning's mail. Boss man took a call to fix a young couple's air conditioner a couple days ago — hottest day so far this month, remember Ollie? Anyway, they got to talking while he looked over the ductwork, and the Mrs. invited me to stay for supper that night. You should see that family, Ollie. They've got the cutest little girl, maybe three years old — loves to run around — maybe you've seen her."
Oliver heard rolls of young laughter rippling through the kitchen window again, and he felt his stomach double over with dread.
"She looks like a healthy kid, doesn't she Ollie?" David said, standing up and adjusting his tie. "But looks can be deceiving. Her lungs work fine, but some other parts of her don't, and that's the kind of stuff I can really work with if given the right opportunity. Like I said, I'm an opportunist. That kiddo is a prime pick for someone in my line of work. Who knows? I may end up taking everything she's got. Of course, we'll have to wait and see what I can do, but frankly, she just might be an easier mark than you and Walt put together."
This time Oliver hoisted himself out of his chair with a single, forceful push and quickly stomped his way across the living room floor to stand nose to nose with David.
"You'll do no such thing," Oliver said, choking on the words. "I won't let you."
David tugged at his shirt cuffs, not even bothering to look at Oliver.
"You, Walt and everybody else already made your choices — there ain't thing one you can do about it now, Ollie old pal," David said, nodding toward the kitchen window. "I'm already there."
Oliver looked through the sunlit rectangle in the next room. The little girl was in her front lawn, sitting cross legged on the lap of the same thin-framed man who was standing in Oliver's own living room. The old man crossed the kitchen and held his hands against the window frame. He could see the two of them twisting together a daisy chain. The young girl caught a glimpse of her neighbor at the window and happily held up the flowers for him to see, and the thin-framed man just smiled. Oliver had to turn away.
"You see, worms like me have a hard time crawling all over town on our own, Ollie, but lucky for us worms, folks like you are willing to do some of the footwork for us," David's voice called from the living room, followed by a low chuckle. "Well, I've taken advantage of your hospitality long enough. Be seein' you."
Oliver paused a moment longer before he lumbered around the corner, unsure of what he would do when he faced David again. To his surprise, all he found was a pair of shiny, two-tone wingtips with a business card tucked into the laces. The words "David & Co." were embossed on the front of the card. Oliver turned it over in his hand and found a note scrawled on the back.
"Thanks for introducing us," it read.